As the number of coronavirus cases grows in the U.S., we’re hearing a lot about how social distancing, self-monitoring and even quarantine play into containment efforts.

But what do those terms mean, and when do they apply?

We asked experts and found out there is some overlap and lots of confusion.

Here’s a quick guide for what you need to know.

Why is all this happening?

An outbreak of the novel coronavirus that began in China about three months ago has now infected more than 9,345 people across all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

The newly identified virus, which causes a respiratory illness known as COVID-19, has killed at least 140 people in the United States, according to ABC News’ count on Wednesday March 18, 2020.

The disease has spread to every continent except Antarctica, infecting more than 218,000 people globally and killing over 8,800, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Governments around the world have implemented travel restrictions, border closures and lockdowns in an effort to slow the spread. Public health experts now say the most important goal is to slow the spread of the coronavirus so that the number of people who require medical attention doesn’t overwhelm hospitals.

Social Distancing Or Quarantined: How Are You Spending Your Time?

If evidence holds from experiences to date in countries further along in the outbreak, most people who contract this virus will have mild cases. Still, the data from abroad indicate that 10% to 20% could end up in a more serious condition. That means if tens of millions of Americans come down with COVID-19, potentially hundreds of thousands may need hospital care.

No one wants that to happen.

In a recent interview, Joshua Sharfstein, Johns Hopkins University, said, “That could stress the health system. We’re trying to avoid becoming like Italy,” 

In Italy, the number of cases rapidly skyrocketed from a handful a few weeks ago to now more than 27,000 cases and over 2,100 deaths. The rapid escalation may be partly attributed to aggressive testing, but hospitals in the northern part of the country are running out of beds in intensive care units.

Q: What is the difference between self-quarantining and self-monitoring?

There’s a bit of overlap, say experts.

Both strategies aim to keep people who have been exposed, or who might have been exposed, away from others as much as possible for a period. That has generally meant 14 days, which is considered the incubation period of COVID-19, although symptoms can appear within a few days of exposure.

Self-monitoring might include regularly checking your temperature and watching for signs of a respiratory illness, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also involves limiting interaction with others.

Say you attended a conference and someone there, whom you were not in close contact with, was later found to be positive for the coronavirus. “The person speaking at the podium was later diagnosed, and you were in the audience — you’re not considered at risk. Those people may want to strictly self-monitor,” says Brene Belew-LaDue, Director of Grand County Public Health Department

“But if you had a long conversation [with that person] or that person coughed or sneezed on you, that’s different,” she adds. You would then “self-quarantine.”

Self-quarantine is a step up from self-monitoring because the person at risk of infection — even though the person still doesn’t have symptoms ― had a higher chance of exposure.

Quarantining means staying home and away from other people as much as possible for that 14-day period. People in this circumstance who don’t live alone should do their best to retreat to their room or find a separate area in their home, and they shouldn’t go out shopping, eating or socializing.

“Don’t sleep in the same bedroom [with other family members], and try to use a separate toilet, if you can,” says Belew-Ladue.. “Be careful with dishes. They should go right from you into the dishwasher.”

If you are under a self-quarantine because of possible exposure and then develop a fever, a cough or shortness of breath, call your doctor, local hospital or public health department to find out what to do. Some local care providers and hospital systems have online or phone assessment programs. For mild cases, physicians may direct you to stay home and treat your symptoms with over-the-counter fever reducers and other treatments. Those with more serious symptoms and people in higher-risk groups may be directed to where to seek medical care.

As test kits become more available, you may also be directed to a place where you can get tested.

Q: What does isolation mean?

A diagnosis of COVID-19 triggers isolation.

“Isolation is when you are sick, either at home or in the hospital,” says Belew-Ladue. “Infectious disease precautions are then much more rigid than in self-quarantine.”

Medical staff, for example, wear gear that is more protective. In addition, the person in isolation would be asked to wear a mask when leaving their room or traveling from home to a medical facility — to try to prevent spreading droplets that might contain the virus.

Q: What is a quarantine?

This is when — under state or federal law — individuals or groups are essentially on lockdown. Recent examples include passengers from cruise ships where other passengers fell ill with COVID-19; those passengers who didn’t fall ill on the ship were then required to stay at military bases for 14 days to see if they developed the disease.

The U.S. hasn’t closed off entire areas — such as towns or cities — since the 1918-1919 Spanish flu. But the federal government and the states do have the power to do so. Many states have started the process of quarantine control. It may seem extreme, but is a necessary precaution to minimize the spread of the disease. If measures are not taken, the disease could eventually overwhelm the healthcare system.

On Monday March 16, 2020, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered the closure of dine-in services at restaurants and bars throughout the state as he continues efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He also ordered gyms, casinos and theaters to close. The order, effective immediately, allows restaurants to continue to serve meals for delivery or carry-out, but not for in-person dining. Polis said it would last for at least 30 days. 

Local Resorts made the decision to shut down operations last week, ahead of the Governors announcement that ordered closure of all ski resorts.

Q: OK, I’m not sick or exposed. What else can I do? What is social distancing?

This is a broad category. It means not shaking hands, avoiding crowds, standing several feet from other people and, most important, staying home if you feel sick.

Businesses are doing it when they ask employees to work from home or stagger work hours. Governments are doing it when they close schools. We’re seeing it in the sports world, with no-spectator games or the postponement of sporting events. Museums, theaters and concert halls where large groups of people gather are closing their doors.

It means be cognizant of your choices.  We all need to take a look at our daily habits and interactions. Limit contact and minimize travel.

“It’s about taking stock, how closely you interact with people in day-to-day life,” says Tiffany Frietag, Middle Park Health. “Increase distances. Cut out handshakes. The idea is to try to empower people to break the lines of transmission.”

Q: Why should I care if I don’t think I’ll get very sick?

“Public health is all about the public. Individual risk may be low. And, thus, the inconvenience of some of these measures may seem high. But taking steps like these will benefit the population as a whole,” says Belew-Ladue.

“An individual who doesn’t get very sick might still pass the infection along to others, including parents, neighbors, people on the bus,” she notes.

Some of those people, in turn, may end up in the hospital. A surge of patients with the virus could fill beds also needed by a broad range of other people, such as cancer patients, newborns or car accident victims.

“This is a condition that may not pose a threat to the individual but a threat to the community,” warns the Grand County COVID-19 Response team.